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University of Massachusetts Amherst

University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Some students may choose professional Masters' degrees that have specific career applications such as the MBA (Master of Business Administration) or the MSW (Master of Social Work). A PhD in English prepares you for teaching at a university level and takes approximately 10 years to complete. Most graduate programs are rigorous, costly, and require a great deal of dedication, so aren’t a good “fallback” choice if you are uncertain of where you are headed when you graduate.

Getting a graduate degree in English Literature is very different from graduating from UMass as an English major. It requires an intense and often grueling commitment to scholarship, research, writing, teaching, and learning. Should you pursue the career of English professor, you will likely have to sacrifice certain freedoms. You may not be able to choose where you live and raise a family. You probably won't strike it rich. But you will also spend your life pursuing knowledge and collaborating with your colleagues and your students in wonderful, world-changing ways. This can be its own reward. But “loving books” and “being a good writer” are not reasons to go to graduate school in literature. This is not, in other words, a decision you should make lightly, or a path to pursue as a stop-gap measure until you figure out what you “really” want to do.

MA - Master of Arts in English

The Master's degree tends toward professional development although some pursue an M.A. en route to the PhD. It takes on average 1-2 years to complete and involves more lengthy essays and usually culminates in a Master’s thesis. But there is little financial assistance available at the Masters level and it is usually very expensive to get one. Some students interested in teaching at a university level start off with the Masters to get a better sense if graduate school is right for them and to establish a distinguished graduate record when they apply to competitive PhD programs.

PhD - Doctor of Philosophy in English

Teaching at a university level usually requires a PhD. Most programs expect students to complete the PhD in six to eight years: three years of coursework and three to five years researching and writing the dissertation. For many students, however, it takes even longer, particularly if there are competing demands, such as raising a family, or full- or even part-time employment. At a minimum, a PhD involves choosing a specialization within your field of interest, coming up with an original research project, writing a 250-400 page dissertation on that subject, and defending the dissertation before a panel of professors.

Many programs also require extensive written and/or oral examinations testing your comprehensive familiarity with the scholarship within your field. Financial assistance is often available in the form of a tuition waiver and stipend for teaching, so you will most likely be teaching one to two classes per semester. Unfortunately, getting a PhD in English is no guarantee that you will be hired as a professor, so a realistic view of a tight job market should be a part of your decision making. Please be aware that PhD programs are exceptionally competitive and typically successful applicants have a 3.7 or higher major GPA and an overall high GPA. If your GPA is less competitive, you may want to consider applying to MA programs en route to the PhD if you are exceptionally motivated to teach at a University level.

Tips for Applying to Graduate School in English

Think of your undergraduate education as preparation for graduate school. Work hard and challenge yourself in your English classes, bearing in mind that other courses are important too and factor into your overall GPA. Take as many English classes in your area of interest as your time and schedule will permit.

Get to know faculty from your English classes. They can give you more insight into their field and provide critical feedback on your scholarly work. If you do well in their classes and they get to know you during their office hours, they will be more willing to sponsor a scholarly independent study, give you tips on the application process, and write a positive letter of recommendation.

Consider doing an independent study or, if you are a member of Commonwealth College, a capstone that involves original research in the area you would like to pursue and culminates in a thesis or a substantial scholarly piece (15-20 pages). This will provide you with the writing sample you will need to send to graduate programs. The most important thing to keep in mind when choosing a writing sample is: quality, quality, quality.

Think about the expense involved to get a graduate degree. Consider the resources available to fund your education. Learn about the financial aid available at the universities to which you are applying and factor in the cost of living in those areas.

Research your schools. What are their areas of strength? Are there faculty teaching in the area you intend to pursue? What is their reputation? Do they require GRE general and/or subject scores?

Work on your personal statement with a faculty member whom you know well and with whom have done excellent work. Your personal statement is one of the most important components of your application, and you should plan to tailor your statement to the graduate programs where you will be applying. Describe the intended course of study you plan to take. Be specific and scholarly. Mention professors with whom you might like to work.

Prepare for the GRE, both the general and subject area components. Not all graduate programs require you take the GRE, so find out what the requirements are for each institution. There are test prep companies like Kaplan and Princeton that offer classes, but they are expensive. Alternatively, there are many GRE help books, which also include actual prior exams. It will help to familiarize yourself with the kinds of questions the tests asks and the format of the exam. To prepare for the subject test, one strategy is to find a long version of a standard anthology (such as Norton, Longman, Broadview or Heath), read the introductions (both general ones and the author-specific ones), and skim the texts to refresh your memory.

A successful graduate application typically involves several components: the personal statement, the undergraduate record, GRE test scores, the writing sample and three letters of recommendation. If possible, you want to avoid a disaster in any one element and show a real strength in at least one area. It's possible to overcome a weak (but not disastrous) GRE score or weak (but not disastrous) subject area score, but not both. The point is to pay attention to every element of the application and to make each component as good as possible.

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